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Women in PhD programs reported more distress and disruptions than male counterparts early in the pandemic

A recently published study of doctoral students finds women and men had vastly different relationships to their work during the first wave of the pandemic, and recommends a more tailored approach to support.


Doctoral work, by its nature a journey into uncharted territory, can be an uphill, lonesome slog at the best of times.

Throw in a global pandemic’s uncertainty and isolating lockdowns – including no access to labs, libraries or even fieldwork – and it is little wonder that doctoral students were sending out distress signals.

Recently, a team of Quebec researchers conducted an exploratory study on the effects the pandemic had on doctoral students. They discovered distress was much higher among female doctoral students, who also reported higher rates of disruption in their research progress. Due to these findings, the researchers recommend that universities reconsider the equal division of resources among PhD students during crises.

“Doctoral programs are changing and these studies on COVID-19 are very important and insightful for how we can move forward and create more positive change while making sure the well-being of our students is still intact or even improved,” said the study’s principal investigator Anna Sverdlik, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Université du Québec à Montréal’s (UQAM) department of psychology and social behaviour research lab.

“Our recommendation is to maybe start thinking about the resources that are allocated to students more as, ‘what does everybody need?’ versus, ‘I’m going to give everybody the same amount of resources to make it fair,’” said Dr. Sverdlik, who has studied doctoral student well-being and progress for a decade.

She co-authored the study with UQAM psychology professor Robert Vallerand, who also directs the social behaviour research lab, and Nathan Hall, a McGill University associate professor in educational and counselling psychology, associate dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, and director of the university’s Achievement Motivation and Emotion Research Group. Understanding how doctoral students were differently affected by the pandemic is “an important question to ask because this is something that is not exclusive to the time of the pandemic,” said Dr. Sverdlik. “This is something that is going to roll over for many years to come.”

The study surveyed just over 700 PhD students from around the world towards the end of the pandemic’s first wave, in June 2020. In addition to the reported disruptions in research progress, the study found that female doctoral students reported higher rates of general anxiety and stress, as well as irritability when engaged in academic work. Males, on the other hand, reported higher rates of enthusiasm when doing their academic work. No significant differences were observed in how each group assessed their degree progress. Given that three-quarters of the respondents were female and nearly 80 per cent were Caucasian, the researchers recommended further investigation with a more diverse group of students.

Respondents said their main challenges were being unable to see family and friends, being constantly stuck at home, having no firm boundaries between work and family time, isolation, and not being able to access their university’s on-campus resources. They coped by seeking social support from their friends and family, distracting themselves by working, exercising, watching television and creating comfortable routines.

“Some folks were able to be hyper-productive,” during those early days of the pandemic, said Monica Batac, a doctoral candidate in social work at McGill. “[But] my work came to a complete standstill until the next academic year.”

As the pandemic was beginning, Ms. Batac was about to embark on in-person community visits for her dissertation on the lives and work of Filipino Canadian settlement and social service workers in Ontario, Manitoba and Yukon. Those visits were not able to proceed, so she left Montreal to go home to Toronto to help her family, many of whom were frontline workers in hospitals, long-term care and manufacturing. She dropped off groceries to her parents when they caught COVID-19, and provided childcare for her nephew while his parents worked extra hours.

“It was tough because there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Ms. Batac, adding that her data collection was ultimately delayed six to eight months, resulting in her study having to be redesigned to integrate virtual methods. Her finances were also impacted as she was unable to get an extension on the federal scholarship she held at the time.

Better communication can help

The researchers suggest graduate supervisors and departments may need to give extra effort to providing guidance and support to female doctoral students during times of crisis. More frequent and open communication with them about how the work is going and how much they’re able to engage with it may also be helpful. It recommends that these students be offered regular communication of expectations to support their continued progress through their degree requirements, including their dissertation, and personal development goals, such as publications. All PhD students should get direction on remote resources for staying socially connected to their academic cultures and mental health supports during the pandemic, the study concludes.

Providing doctoral students with the right support “is so individual. It just comes down to what people need,” said Stephen Ross, an English professor and graduate student mentor at the University of Victoria. That said, he particularly noticed the added strain on students with childcare responsibilities, predominantly women. As a general approach, he stepped up his contacts with all his mentees: “It was not even to talk about progress on research but just to say, ‘How are you doing?’” he said. “If somebody is not in a good place personally, they’re not going to do very good work.” He also initiated a “Walk and Talk” program for graduate students to meet up with each other outside for social interaction and peer support.

Ms. Batac credits a thesis-writing group at her university as well as weekly opportunities to talk with other doctoral students for helping her to find fresh momentum and accept that flexibility would be a necessary part of her PhD experience. Having a supervisor who checked in with her frequently and who understood that different students would be progressing at different rates because of their individual experiences and responsibilities was also important.

“I appreciated that versus having to pretend that things were normal. My adviser, Jill Hanley, mirrored how to be flexible and compassionate with myself,” said Ms. Batac, who hopes to defend her dissertation in spring 2023.

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